On Commemorating Abolition

This continues a topic I started last week.

In November 2006, the United Nations adopted a resolution declaring March 25, 2007 as the International Day for the Commemoration for the Two-hundredth Anniversary of the Abolition of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. That the resolution was put forward by the CARICOM states is remarkable. That it was supported widely by other members is important. But what we do with it here in The Bahamas, where we are generally unaware of our role in the international community, and where we are usually ignorant of our place in history, will demonstrate, and perhaps determine, who we really are, and in which direction we are heading.

We live, you see, in a society for whom the history of slavery is palpably uncomfortable. For many of us, it’s preferable to forget our slave past, perhaps because we’re ashamed of having been enslaved. For others, we’d rather forget the fact that we owned slaves. For still others, we are torn – some of our ancestors were slaves, and others were their owners.

We also live in a society whose images of slavery have been shaped almost indelibly by the depictions of the slave pasts of other people – of the USA, or of the West Indies. We imagine plantations and overseers and whips and brands, but we don’t know that there were fundamental differences between slavery in The Bahamas and slavery in the West Indies and in the southern USA. We don’t realize that our plantations failed miserably, making our slavery quite a different animal.

In the first place, although cotton was grown here for a mere thirty years, slavery was legal in The Bahamas from 1648, when the Eleutherean Adventurers settled in Eleuthera, until 1834, when it was officially abolished altogether, and the slaves technically set free. In these 186 years, only thirty of them involved plantation slavery. So what about the remaining one and a half centuries?

According to Gail Saunders, large numbers of Bahamian slaves worked alongside their masters in any number of professions. Many were skilled labourers – bakers and masons and carpenters, cooks in people’s houses and cooks on boats, bosuns and mates and fishermen, farmers and scribes, and seamstresses and laundresses. Bahamian slavery involved the kinds of people who might in other societies be called “house slaves” – people who were able to gain diverse skills and glean some education to give them some standing in the world. So we might be forgiven for thinking that Bahamian slavery was relatively kind.

But it isn’t what Bahamian slaves had to do that was important. What made slavery evil was what it said slaves were. Although on the surface Bahamian slaves were better educated and better treated than others to the north and the south, we cannot overlook this one fundamental fact: that slavery made people, into objects, things that could be owned and bought and sold.

So in tandem with the sense of independence and individuality that Bahamian slave ownership bred, there was also inculcated in Bahamians the same sense of basic dependency, the very self-denigration that all slave societies create. Bahamian slave society may well offer fewer examples of brutality to the historian; but at least one the examples of brutality was outstanding. The story of Kate Moss, the young slave girl who was so badly punished by her owners that she died at their hands, became one of the examples used by British Abolitionists in their arguments about the inhumanity of the institution.

And the closer relationship between the Bahamian masters and their slaves, while appearing to be kinder and gentler on the surface, had its own insidious result. You might say that on the plantation the relationship between the master and the slave was clear-cut, and this enabled the slaves to come to terms with their condition in such a way that they were able to rebel against it – and did, in many places. In the Bahamian situation, though, where slaves were often very closely connected with their masters, and where they often forged friendships and partnerships with them – at sea, at home, in the yard, in the shop – the line between property and owner became blurred, and made the struggle for freedom far more complex and difficult.

You see, it’s often easier to fight one’s enemies when they’re obvious. When the person who is defining you as a piece of property is also the same one who is feeding you and clothing you, from whose very hands you might accept the gifts, and beside whom you might work, day in, day out, it becomes very difficult to separate the kindness of the individual person from the fundamental injustice of the system. When the person who is keeping you in your “place” is also the one who offers you assistance, and whom you might like and respect and even emulate, it becomes almost impossible to seek freedom. The comfort brought by the relationship you have is often too much to put at risk.

Perhaps that’s why we Bahamians today are so uncomfortable with remembering that we were once slaves. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that our freedom is only half-here; for we are still quick to surrender our identities and our sovereignty for a taste of the comfort offered to us by the masters of today. There’s nothing new for us to be asked weigh the tough realities of forging our own way against the ease offered us by people who come in from abroad, smiling and handing us treasures we don’t truly understand. Old habits are hard to break, after all, and it’s happened to us before. The Lucayans lost their islands, and their culture; the slaves and their descendants got material assistance in the place of freedom. Why should we be any different?

And so, the commemoration of abolition in The Bahamas has got to be a very serious, a very solemn thing. We must recognize what the process of abolition began, while recognizing too the role we – black, white, slave, free, cruel and kind – all played in the dual struggle between servitude and liberty. And above all, we must recognize that that struggle is not over, and steel ourselves to continue it for as long as it takes for us to be truly free.